Enchantment and Quaker Identity
Since Max Weber’s groundbreaking study, The Protestant Ethic and Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905:1930) it has become something of a scholarly trope to treat the rise of secular modernity and the formation of Quakerism as going effortlessly together. As one of the numerous puritan sects (framed by the milieu of Calvinism), Quakers transmitted and reinforced what would become dominant technical values of work, asceticism and productiveness which sustained the post-feudal economy. Here Quakers are depicted as resolutely ‘modern’ because they exemplify the moral habitus upon which early capitalist expansion and accumulation ultimately depended on. While pre-modern religion was sustained by a magical connection between symbolic and concrete realities, Weber argued that early Quaker exemplified a rational and disenchanted vision of the world. This is certainly a powerful story modern British Friends tell about how ourselves. In this connection, we sometimes call ourselves a ‘Liberal Religion’, which along with Progressive Judaism and Unitarianism, celebrates questioning and scepticism. Whatever old religion once consisted of (ritual, magic and creeds) we Friends have now done away with them. But in next two posts, I want to call into question the habitual link between Quakerism and modernity by introducing you to a magical, enchanted, Quakerism, which, I argue, is the real basis of our faith and practice. The object of introducing you this unfamiliar faith is to suggest ways in which our contemporary Liberal Quaker might be impoverished of some deep spiritual riches. In an effort to place this portrait in the context of contemporary Quakerism, the second post will focus on how early Quakerism can challenge and enrich us today.
Before getting down to these substantial issues, what do I mean by enchanted Quakerism? And how is it different from our modern way of thinking? Here I take my cue from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. In his twin studies, Sources of the Self and The Secular Age, Taylor suggests that a controlling feature of our modern world is the disenchantment of the cosmos. In the pre-modern cosmologies of Catholic Europe, objective and subjective experiences were always fused together in people’s daily experiences. So for an average Medieval Christian, physical processes like birth, growth and death had the capacity to represent the sacred unfolding in time. Likewise, ordinary objects like bread, iron or fire, could be imbibed with divine power by ritual gesture or intention. How was it that the religious elites of Christendom could reconcile themselves to this roundly superstitious cast of mind? The theological roots of this reconciliation run deep in the thought of Augustine of Hippo. For him, creation is not just a collection of stuff, but a text which could be read be an acute observer. Another way of putting it is to say that things of the ordinary world could ‘signify’ divine things. As Augustine expresses this doctrine in De doctrina christiana, the world abounds with signa naturalia, which leads the mind from material objects back to their Creator.
Thus for Medieval Augustinians (and later Thomists) reality was not merely inert material to be deconstructed but Buch der Natur– a book to be studiously read for ‘signs’ of divine nature. Crucially such a symbolic meaning are not productions of the individual mind (imposed on something which otherwise is without meaning). The structure of the world is interwoven with symbolic meaning, irrespective of the particular sensibilities of the human observer. It is precisely this radical commitment to nature as text which for Taylor renders the Middle Ages is an epoch of high enchantment. To be ‘enchanted’ means to perceive the power of the subjective in objects and perceive the objective status of what is subjective. This is fundamentally a world where words, gestures and intentions can have real concrete effects. It is a world of high ritual yes, but also a cosmos of angels, spirits and miracles. And most importantly, God is always doing stuff in the real day to day world. From the sacred procession of the liturgical year to popular recourse to saintly intercession and protective charms, Medieval life was continually filled with symbolic reminders that one is included in the unfolding ‘story’ of God’s salvation-drama. Here the divine and human worlds were not separate realms (which needed to be navigated according to divergent rules) but part of the same ordered reality. The Eucharistic rite is a vivid illustration of this radical form of everyday sanctity. By the High Middle Ages, the wine and the host were charged objects, capable of communicating ‘the white magic’ of the Church to the faithful. Their power was considered so great that many Medieval congregants feared to take communion on the basis that ‘charged objects, however, good their magic can be dangerous if taken from the wrong side’.
The White Magic of Gift
What was it about this ‘white magic’ that it provoked awe and fear? A useful framework through which to understand ‘the magic’ of the Eucharistic rite is offered by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss and his theory of ‘gift’. Through his analysis of diverse ancient cultures, Mauss seeks to demonstrate that social orders are commonly maintained by the reciprocal transfer of gifts between their members. Each gift given has an obligation to give in turn, and therefore maintaining a circularity of giving. Yet, in archaic societies, the worth of these gifts are not calculated according to mere utility but is related to an intangible connection between the gift and the giver. As Mauss expresses this conflation ‘What imposes obligation in the present received and exchanged, is the fact that the thing received is not inactive. Even when it had been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him.’ Thus in the act of giving, ‘[the] chief is merged with his clan and the clan with him. Individuals feel themselves acting in only one way.’ In this vein, partaking of the gift, itself imparts the virtues of the chief- his act of generous act magically translated into the means of social wholeness. We can see this organicist logic repeated demonstrated in popular Medieval beliefs surrounding the wine and host. Here Jesus Christ is not merely the ‘clan chief’ at the level of the memorial (Protestant realism) but is an active participant in Eucharistic exchange. In accord with the concreteness of Medieval semiotics, the subjective experience generated by ritual enactment possesses concrete objectivity. The Son of God (who once healed the sick and fed the hungry) is still present in the Eucharistic act, engaging in the same work, often in ways transgressing theological orthodoxy. As Kat Hill observes regarding popular receptions of the Eucharist:
People believed that the clothes worn to the service could be imbued with thaumaturgic properties, so that in Oldenburg in north-west Germany ill calves were treated with the salt and water in a shoe which had recently been worn recently at the sacrament. The altar cloth on which the bread and wine were placed was said to heal epileptics and the possessed; the corporal, the pure white cloth reserved for the Host, was said to be good for eye illnesses.
The sheer reach of this magical-semiotic mode of thinking tells us something crucial about the character of Medieval ecclesiology. The Church sought to be the pervasive guardians of a cosmic economy of gift, with Jesus, the Eucharistic giver, at the centre. The Eucharistic table and its power were emblematic of a sacred social vision, where the gift-giving of Jesus was to re-enacted in everyday life. This is demonstrated by Christendom’s interlocking systems of charity, just price legislation and anti-usury controls. Viewed theo-politically these measures were intended to ensure that the ‘magic’ of the Eucharistic table was all-encompassing. There was to be no space where the logic of sacred gift did not rule, ‘on earth as in heaven’ (Matt 6:20). The result of this attitude was an accentuation of the idea that divine power functions like a natural fact- like electricity. The magical power of the Eucharist could be harnessed for diverse ends, sometimes nefarious ones. Medieval texts abound with the fear that wicked priests or witches might steal the host and use its power for improper or malicious intent. Yet as a gift imprinted with the character of the Christ-giver had ways of fighting back against its theft or desecration. Indeed, as Mauss reminds us, in the logic of archaic exchange, ‘To refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war’. And as the combatant, the host could be a formidable force, with the power to mutilate the offenders’ body. Such stories merely underscore that key dimension of enchantment- that symbolic interactions are not viewed as human judgements (existing in and through the self) but as constituting the deep structure of reality.
How Did We Become Disenchanted?
So how is the modern world different? For Taylor the answer lies chiefly in a distinctly modern wedge between outward form and inner meaning. Disenchantment occurs when divine power no longer rests in the structure of ritual acts or resides in material objects, but resides instead in the transformed inward perception of the believer. Thus, when Protestant reformers decried the saints’ days, images and talismans of Medieval Catholicism as gross idolatries, set their faces against an implicit religion of mediation which bound material and spiritual reality together. Theology, once the handmaiden of this vision of enchantment became the means by which Christianity became the great conqueror of enchantment which it now deemed heathenish in the extreme. According to Taylor such resistance has several enduring effects:
The power of God doesn’t work through various ‘sacramentals’ or locations of sacred powers which we can draw on. These are seen to be something we can control, and hence blasphemous. In one way we can say that the sacred/profane distinction breaks down, insofar as it can be placed in person, time, space, gesture. This means that the sacred is suddenly broadened…. But in another way, the channels are radically narrowed because this sanctification depends entirely now on our inner transformation, our throwing ourselves on God’s mercy in faith…. So we disenchant the world; we reject the sacramentals; all the elements of ‘magic’ in the old religion.
Once the ‘old magic’ is removed taken a number of notable trajectories become in principle possible- including ‘the relativization of outer ceremony’, ‘Latitudinarianism’ and reliance on some notion of ‘inner light’. Regardless of the precise outworking of disenchantment, one fact remains constant. In the world after enchantment, one could not expect the world to offer an automatic portal to the divine. One must instead know God in through the inward faculties of the mind, heart and will. In this vein, we can understand Luther’s claim that ‘faith alone’ is the key to salvation as an explicit protest against a world in which divine power flows generally and indiscriminately, without reference to the self. For Luther, God’s power was not a natural power which effortless inhabited the world. Rather, for Luther the force of Christ was an alien presence, which made itself known to the individual, whom God wished to be saved. At its most extreme, such a rejection of the concrete power of symbol could lead to isolation or permanent introspection. The 17th-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza provides an excellent case study in this regard. As a man who lived much of his later life without the cultic structure of any religious community (and without a unified sacred story) Spinoza makes explicit many of the latent possibilities at the heart of Luther’s theological proposal. If the individual is the proper locus of religious experience, why is the Church or Synagogue needed to guarantee this inward activity? Spinoza’s answer in his Theo-Political Treatise is that old world of miracles, institutions and signs is bred by false belief and ignorance. As Spinoza reflects on this incurious cast of mind:
The masses…style unusual phenomena “miracles,” and partly from piety, partly from opposing the students of science, prefer to remain in ignorance of natural causes and only to hear of those things which they know least, and consequently admire most. In fact, the common people can only adore God and refer all things to His power by removing natural causes, and conceiving of things happening out of its due course, and only admires the power of God when the power of nature is subject to it. This idea seems to have taken its rise among the early Jews who saw the Gentiles around them worshipping visible gods like the sun….and in order to inspire the conviction that such divinities were weak and inconstant or changeable, told how they themselves were under the sway of an invisible God, and narrated their miracles, trying to further show that the God they worshipped arranged the whole of nature for their sole benefit.
In place of a word of interconnected superstitions, Spinoza advocates a rational and entirely inward love of God, where the mind adores the order and beauty of the world, without the misguided hope that consciousness of any kind can affect its course. A key exemplar of this inward ideal for Spinoza was Jesus of Nazareth, whose supposed miracles were quite secondary to the reform of the soul. Instead of a world mediated by interlocking symbols (replicating relations of gift) Spinoza came to view God and nature as modes of a single rational system which possesses no desire or subjectivity other than the subjectivity displayed in the lives of finite beings. It is in this, and similar moves that we can see the key contours of the modern vision of the cosmos. The above account leaves the Quaker theologian with two of pressing questions. What extent do early Quaker communities display tendencies towards modern disenchantment? And how might such tendencies be said to impact early Quaker commitments?
Telling a Different Story: Quakers and Witchcraft
My response to the above queries is to suggest that the essence of Quakerism is not in anyway ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ or ‘democratic’, but rather rooted in a notion of enchanted religion. For a long time, Liberal Quakers (including many in Britain) have thought of themselves as deeply modern and progressive, forgetting of course, the less respectable, less modernist strands of Quaker experience. Of course at first glance, Quaker theology conformed to the mainstay of Taylor’s modernist tale of disenchantment, in perhaps its most extreme form. After all, embryonic Quakerism utterly rejected traditional Church hierarchies, separate priesthoods, liturgies, and the very notion of sacred sites or objects. But the way we knit these features into a story about how Enlightened and modern we are, is actually a fairly recent tale itself. We see this powerfully expressed in Isaac Pennington 1659 tract Babylon the Great described. By applying the recognisably Augustinian division between the City of God and the City of Man, Pennington argues that his contemporaries have been spiritually deceived. While they thought they were devoting themselves to the City of God (through services, rites and liturgies), they were, in fact, participating in the hollow devices of those forces, that actively oppose the rule of Christ. As Pennington sketches the contours of this latter state:
[It] is a spiritual city, a mystical city, a city built by the working of the mystery of iniquity, 2 Thes. 2:7. whereupon she (the whore of Babylon) is called mystery. Rev. 17:5. It is not a city of plain wickedness, but a city of sin hid; of sin keeping its life under a covering, under a form of godliness; of sin reigning in the heart under zeal, under devotion, under praying, believing, worshipping, hoping, waiting, &c. Where sin lies hid within under these, there is Babylon; there is the mystery of witchcraft; there is the painted throne of Satan; there is spiritual Egypt and Sodom, where the Lord of life is daily crucified.
At the heart of this social order lies ‘varieties of sorcery, of witchery, of enchantments’ which intoxicates the pious by enslaving their ‘spiritual senses’. Why this focus on the occult? In taking up this imagery Pennington was doing no more than echoing the experimental theology of early Quaker leaders. George Fox makes clear throughout his Journal that has encountered and supernaturally contended with witches. James Nayler was equally convinced of the existence of those who wielded supernatural power. In this creature of popular fear and revulsion, Quakers saw a mirror of their own spiritual path. While Friends saw the power of Christ as constituting a pure and absolute gift, witchcraft exemplified the spirit of those who wanted to satisfy the motions of the will. In this way, Pennington’s evocation of witchcraft is intended to express his general rejection of a religiosity of control and manipulation. In a deeply apocalyptic outworking of this argument, Pennington condemns those who pursue ‘great power, signs, miracles’ on the basis that such searchers would become deceived by the false and wicked displays of demonic power. While Pennington readily concedes that the dynamics of ritual and enchanted dictated the terms of the first covenant (provided for ‘them that believe not’) he suggests that the second covenant is radically iconoclastic. Instead of looking outward signs and images, those who follow Christ, do so in a spirit of inward truth, without the crutch of wonders. Yet, what of those who continue to participate in the great ritualistic/symbolic edifice of Christendom? Are they by necessity wicked? Pennington, in a moment of remarkable tenderness, refuses to wholly condemn the life of the old cosmic ritualist. The deceived, he says, will frequently have their goodness used against them, so that they ‘shall never come out of Babylon; but only be translated into some of the more refined chambers of it, and fed with some more fresh likenesses of truth, where he shall still remain an inhabitant and worshipper in some image, perhaps of universal love, life, and liberty, and yet be out of the life, out of the love, out of the liberty of the truth’.
Enchanted without Rituals
So what does discussion add to Taylor story about disenchantment? My suggestion is that early Quakerism represents something very odd indeed. Early Friends rejected the rituals and symbols of Christendom, but they still subscribed to the magical thinking and beliefs that underlined the old sacred order. First generation Quakers can believe in witches but reject the Eucharist.They participate in the old vision of the magical sacred in a new way. So early Friends don’t reject the idea of the world as a book to be read, they just reject the dominant pair of reading glasses.Yet if Friends expressed their commitment to enchantment through defensive postures against witchcraft, they also rendered their own bodies enchanted through the indwelling work of the Spirit. Many early Quaker leaders had the capacity to channel supernatural power through touch, in the manner of Jesus and the Apostles, or through the peculiar power of silent prayer. The itinerant preacher James Nayler was even credited with the power to raise the dead.
Miraculous healing abilities of Friends were accompanied by other strange powers, worthy of their occult adversaries. These included clairvoyance, telepathy and the power to interpret the meaning of dreams. If Friends were not fully aware of their role in sustaining an older model of religious enchantment, it was not lost on their more conventionally Protestant opponents, for whom the charismatic nature of Quaker ministry served as a sure sign of the very diabolisms Quakers publicly opposed. For both Puritan and Anglican churches, the spirit-led nature of early Quakerism must have appeared indistinguishable from sorcery. Thus, when the scholar Samuel Fisher was convinced by George Fox in 1655, it is notable that friends regarded Fisher as ‘bewitched’. In conjunction with this accusation, there was also the recurrent connection in anti-Quaker tracts between Friends and Catholicism. At its most elaborate, unreceptive contemporaries saw the Quaker craze as a Jesuit-inspired plot to undermine the true faith. While this latter connection evidently arose from the sheer social otherness of Quakerism, it may also owe something to a subconscious judgement made by hostile opponents. Looked at from a distance, one can see a stark resemblance between the liberality with which Quakers were said to dispense supernatural power, and the older white magic of medieval Catholicism.Quakers now saw themselves, and not Christendom as the Guardians of the Churches’ Eucharistic gift. While the Anglicans and Catholics behaved like Simon Magus (in their attempt to capture the Spirit for power and fame) Friends sought the magical gift in the proper spirit of the Gospel. They wanted the power shared and shared alike. If magic was like electricity in the pre-modern world, Friends were like lightning conductors. With their doctrine of perfectionism and commitment to the Inward Light of Christ in the body of the true believer, Calvinist and Anglican might be forgiven for thinking that Quakers saw themselves as directors of supernatural power, like the medieval priest, or the fugitive witch in possession of the host.
The Enchanted World of Woolman
But surely of all of this enchantment was just a first-generation enthusiasm which died down in the end? Yes, it did, but strong postures of enchantment existed within Anglophone Quakerism, much longer than people now realise. An excellent example of late enchantment can be found in the New England Quaker abolitionist John Woolman (1720 –1772). A cursory acquaintance with Woolman’s Journal reveals a rich religious life, infused with dreams and visitations. What is so significant in Woolman for contemporary theorists of enchantment is the way in which the ordinary realms of home, work and sleep are always infused with divine or angelic presences. In such a world moments of faith healing and prophecy are not merely possible, but entirely to be expected. Indeed, as Woolman points out, his own experience of prayer had convinced him that of the veracity of ‘the miracles of Jesus Christ recorded in the holy Scriptures.’ As such a remark implies, the spiritual life is more than an interior activity for Woolman. Like Augustine, this colonial Quaker is acutely aware that the world as full of ‘natural signs’, so that nature communicates the will of the creator. As Woolman reflects, even the weather we can reflect God’s intent:
[After] a long drought, when the sky hath grown dark with a collection of matter, and clouds like lakes of water hung over our heads, from whence the thirsty land have been soaked; I have at times, with awfulness, beheld the vehement operation of lightning, made sometimes to accompany these blessings, as a messenger from him who created all things, to remind us of our duty in a right use of those benefits, and give striking admonitions, that we do not misapply those gifts, in which an Almighty power is exerted, in bestowing them upon us.
Instead of disinvesting the world of power, nature served as the basis for Woolman’s exploration of the spiritual world within. In contrast to Weber’s modernist rationalism, Friends like Woolman continue to display a much older magical rationality, where God-space and daily space continually intersect. What might this enchanted world of Fox, Pennington and Woolman relate to the world of British Quakers today? In the next post, I try to offer a constructive challenge to the secularist and pluralistic tendencies of Liberal Quakerism. I will suggest that only through the recovery of a sacred cosmos can Quakerism develop a mode of internal coherence which can adequately disentangle its own practices from those of secularism, Enlightenment rationalism and capitalism.
 For a clear summary of these theological concepts, see Rhodora E. Beaton, Embodied Words, Spoken Signs: Sacramentality and the Word in Rahner and Chauvet, (Mediapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), p. 25
 Taylor, A Secular Age, (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 614
 Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 79
 Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 71
 Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 73
 Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 73
 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, (London: Routledge, 1990: 2000), p. 12
 Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, (London: Routledge, 1990: 2000), p. 32
 See Kilian McDonnell, John Calvin, the Church and the Eucharist, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 281-282
 Kate Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism 1525-1585, (Oxford: Oxford University, 2015), p. 145
 Paul Turpin, The Moral Rhetoric of Political Economy: Justice and Modern Economic Thought, (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 27
 Merrall L. Price, Consuming Passions: The Uses of Cannibalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 60
 Mauss, The Gift p.
 C. M. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England, (Yale: Yale University Press, p. 44
 Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 111
 Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 79
 Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 227-8
 Martin Luther, Commentary on the Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1956: 1974), p. 110
 Benedict Spinoza, Theo-Political Treatise, in Works of Spinoza, Volume I, trans R.H.M. Elwes, (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), pp. 81-82
 Spinoza, Theo-Political Treatise, in Works of Spinoza, Volume I, trans R.H.M. Elwes, (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), p. 105
 John W. Graham, The Faith of a Quaker, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), p. 403
 Isaac Pennington, The Works of Isaac Pennington, Vol. 1. (Farmington: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), p. 143-4
 Pennington, The Works of Isaac Pennington, Vol. 1. (Farmington: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), p. 150
 George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 155
 James Nayler, A collection of sundry books, epistles and papers written by James Nayler, (London: Whetstone & Buxton, 1829), p. 354
 Pennington, The Works, p. 145
 Pennington, The Works, p. 146
 Pennington, The Works, p. 146
 Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 384
 See G. N. Cantor, Quakers, Jews, and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1900, (Oxford: Ox University Press, 2005), p. 227
 Jane Straw, Miracles in Enlightenment England, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 54
 Peter Elmer, ‘‘Saints or Sorcerers: Quakerism, Demonology and the Decline of Witchcraft in Seventeenth England Century’, in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, ed. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 149
 James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, (New York: Dover Publications, 1973), p. 937
 These interlocking elements of Quaker religious life was given a vital dialogical function when Quakers settled in America. When Friends encountered Native American practices of healing and dream interpretation, they possessed their own compelling cultural analogue. There are even records of Quakers assisting members of various tribes in the task of dream interpretation. See Carla Gerona, ‘Imagining Peace in Quaker and Native American Dream Stories’, in Friends and Enemies in Penn’s Woods: Colonists, Indians, and the Racial Construction of Pennsylvania, (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 2004), pp. 45-6
 Own Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, (London: Continuum, 2003), pp. 36-7
 Peter Elmer, Witchcraft, Witch-Hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 152
 See Elmer, ‘‘Saints or Sorcerers: Quakerism, Demonology and the Decline of Witchcraft in Seventeenth England Century’, in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, ed. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 159-60
 Geoffrey Plank, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 184
 Plank, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 36
 In one remarkable dream, Woolman is able to hear the voices of angels as well as witness the reaction of heaven as he repents of his sin of self-will. See The Journal of John Woolman, (Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1871), p. 264-5
 John Woolman, Quoted in Job Otis, Memoirs of the Life and Religious Exercises of Job Otis, (New York: Sherwood, 1861), p. 75
 John Woolman, ‘Considerations on the Unity and Harmony of Mankind’, in John Woolman and the Affairs of Truth, ed. James Pound, (San Francisco, Inner Light Books), p. 163